Swept Away


By H.S. White
May 24, 2012 Bookmark and Share

Water. It's what Orlan Tucker wants as he walks the edge of the dusty farm road. A terrible thirst has come upon him since his last ride left him at the Oklahoma state line.
Looking across a vast ocean of undulating Johnson grass he sees a church. It is small and gray and sits alone on a stunted ridge. Orlan wades into the Johnson grass, moves toward the lonely structure. He feels good. The heft of his gear hasn't yet begun to fatigue him. The pain hasn't come yet, but it will. It will.

* * *

Becky Sue fidgets in the hard mahogany pew. Reverend Bonner's voice modulates. It is like sand caught in her ears. Her legs are dangling, not quite long enough yet to touch the floor. She's picking at a crusty, dime-size stain on her pale yellow sundress, as if it were a scab. Frowning, she picks and picks until the old woman beside her takes her small hand, settles her obsession.
"Stop it!" the old woman whispers. Her breath is warm and smells like stale bread.
Becky Sue swings her legs. She thinks of a song and then sings it in her restless mind:

Itsy Bitsy spider
Went up the water spout,
Down came the rain
And washed the spider out,
Out came the sun and
Dried away the rain,
And the Itsy Bitsy spider
Went up the spout again.

She's singing this in her mind when the man comes into the church. Everyone looks at him. He looks tired…so tired. He looks sleepy.

* * *

Outside the sky fills with darkness and the breeze that sets the Johnson grass asway carries with it a clean watery scent. Rain's acomin', Delmar Wickett can tell. If he were younger he might panic. Might hide 'neath a patchwork quilt, his fingertips firmly lodged in his ears, his heart clangin' like a railroad engine. But he doesn't get 'fraid no more.
Delmar guides his scuffy red pickup. It comes to rest on the dusty roadside. He tries the key again and again. Pumps the accelerator pedal. Listens to the motor's wheezy grind. Nothing.
"Goddamnit!" he croaks, pounding the dash with a fragile fist.
Delmar peers into the stormy twilight, sees the church on the ridge. He hasn't been in the Lord's house since...since Peal Harbor Sunday.

* * *

When the service comes to a close, Orlan rises up from his seat (he sat alone on a naked bench closest to the doors), waits for the chattery current of people to vacate the narrow aisles before approaching the preacher. He pays no mind to the old man who has come inside, a five-gallon gas can in one hand, a cane in the other.
"Sorry to crash your gathering, brother," Orlan says. "But I just come off the road and would really appreciate you lettin' me fill my water jug."
The Reverend regards the stranger. He does not smile, just says, "Becky Sue," and the little girl appears out of nowhere and shyly sidles to his leg.
"Yessir?" she says. She has forgotten the stain for now, but the song has stuck.
"Please show this man to the cold water fountain. He has come a long, long way and a mighty thirst resides within him." His tone is proper, all business.
"Yessir," says Becky Sue. And the stranger follows her to the back of the building.

* * *

Cool wind slips across Lake Texoma. It mixes excitedly with warm air and soon the whirling mass takes shape, sweeps its way across the ocean of Johnson grass…

* * *

Delmar takes his time at the water fountain; the water comes out too damn slow. At least it's cold. Just oughta be, for Christ's sake!
"He looks mean," Becky Sue whispers in Orlan's ear. It's something Orlan always said of his own grandfather back in Plainville, Wisconsin. "And he doesn't have a pinky finger on his hand."
Orlan says, "It probably hurt a lot."
"Umm hmmm."
Outside the wind whirls toward the church.
Becky Sue sips cold water, then Orlan bends for a drink.
All three hear the tornado at once.

* * *

For a time after the church was destroyed, Reverend Bonner held services outdoors, in a grove of gnarled pecan trees. He could have been with them-the three taken by the storm. Could have been in the back of the church, quenching himself at the cold water fountain. The Lord spared him, he thought.
But where had the furious winds taken them? For not one of them has been found. Not one.
"Let us bow our heads in remembrance of those swept away from us in that brief instant…" And the folks in the grove prayed.
"Amen."